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Evgenia Kara-Murza, the wife of imprisoned Russian opposition figure Vladimir Kara-Murza, looks on during a discussion at the Washington Post in Washington, DC on April 17, 2023.

‘When cracks appear, we’ll see people in the streets’ Evgenia Kara-Murza on her husband’s imprisonment and Russia’s future

Source: Meduza
Evgenia Kara-Murza, the wife of imprisoned Russian opposition figure Vladimir Kara-Murza, looks on during a discussion at the Washington Post in Washington, DC on April 17, 2023.
Evgenia Kara-Murza, the wife of imprisoned Russian opposition figure Vladimir Kara-Murza, looks on during a discussion at the Washington Post in Washington, DC on April 17, 2023.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

When Evgenia Kara-Murza’s husband was arrested in Russia in April 2022, she immediately made it her mission to continue his work from abroad. A longtime anti-Putin dissident, her husband — Russian opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza — had been speaking out publicly against Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Faced with charges ranging from violating wartime censorship to high treason, Vladimir spent a year in pre-trial detention and was sentenced to 25 years in prison in April 2023. Then, in September, the prison authorities transferred him out of Moscow just days before his 42nd birthday. Kara-Murza’s lawyers managed to locate him at a maximum-security prison in the Siberian city of Omsk, where he has been placed in a punishment cell indefinitely. On the sidelines of the Halifax International Security Forum, Evgenia Kara-Murza sat down with Eilish Hart, the editor of Meduza’s The Beet newsletter, to discuss Vladimir’s experience in the Russian prison system, the possibility of a “different” Russia, and the importance of victory on Ukraine’s terms. This interview has been edited and abridged for length and clarity.

In September, your husband was transferred out of Moscow to serve a 25-year prison sentence in Siberia. But initially it was unclear where he had been sent. What were the circumstances surrounding his transfer?

In Russia, when we say that we live in a Kafkaesque reality, it is true. And not only is it Kafkaesque, but it is also a very nasty, evil reality. Vladimir was sent on a transfer two days before his birthday, because I’m sure the authorities knew how many letters of support, encouragement, and solidarity he would receive — including, of course, letters from his own kids. And that is the evil nature of the current regime: They have to break a person by depriving him or her of any means to know that they are loved, cherished, respected, and admired.

So yes, he was sent on a transfer a couple of days before his birthday and that was a very worrying period for us because in Russia, the transfer is one of the most dangerous periods in the life of a political prisoner. A transfer can take months; there is no law that defines the length of a transfer. And the way transfer happens is the person is moved from the [pre-trial] detention center to the place where he or she would be serving their sentence, passing through all these other detention centers along the way. In each of these centers, a person can spend days, or weeks, or months, and the authorities are not required by law to provide any information about a person’s whereabouts, the state of their health, or their needs, to anyone: neither lawyers nor family members. So the authorities can basically make a person disappear for a very long period of time. We know of such cases when people were just lost. 

I believe it is crucial to keep the name of the person who is being transferred in the public eye and continuously demand that the authorities provide information about a person’s whereabouts. It helps, like it helped in the case of Andrey Pivovarov, who has now served over three years in prison for being affiliated with a so-called “undesirable organization,” the Open Russia Foundation, and for just wanting to run in the elections and wanting a different future for Russia, just like my husband. 

It was very worrying to know that Vladimir is one-on-one with those people who tried to kill him twice in the past. We used all the means available and, thanks to the amazing work of our lawyers, we were able to locate Vladimir very quickly, and we tried right away to establish contact with him just to make sure that he’s alive. 

How often are you in communication with Vladimir now? What do you know about the conditions and the treatment he’s experiencing in prison? 

Upon arrival at the strict regime prison colony, he was put in a punishment cell right away. That happened on September 21 and he has not left that cell since. Moreover, he was able to let me know that the neighboring cells in the block where he’s being held were also emptied. So he’s basically being held alone, in solitary confinement, in the punishment block of a maximum-security prison colony in the middle of Siberia. A Kara-Murza can only be sentenced to a quarter of a century in Siberia, it seems; it comes with the name. 

Vladimir is being held in a cell that measures three meters by one and a half meters [roughly 10 feet by five feet], with a bed that is fixed to the wall from morning till night, and a backless stool is the only piece of furniture in the cell. He has no phone call rights, no visitation rights. He still gets to see his lawyer once a week, or once every couple of weeks, so the lawyer can make sure that he’s alive and as well as can be [expected]. He gets an hour walk every day, during which he does not see anyone either. He gets an hour and a half of writing or reading a day, and when these 90 minutes are up, everything is taken from him. So if he receives any letters through the prison correspondence system, those letters are brought to him together with pen and paper. He gets to read them and respond to as many as he can in those 90 minutes and that’s it. 

So if you count an hour walk, an hour and a half of writing, and eight hours of sleep, that leaves him with 13.5 hours of absolute void in that cell. No human communication, no ability to do anything. He’s just sitting between these four walls. 

Is Vladimir in solitary because he’s being quarantined or because of some alleged infraction (like we’re seeing with Alexey Navalny, for example)? Is there a chance that he will be put in with a general prison population?

No, there is absolutely no such chance and that was made clear to him when he was brought to that prison colony. The authorities basically told him — it was never put on paper, of course, they would not put something like this on paper — but they let him know that they would not allow him out of solitary confinement because they didn’t want him to “contaminate” other prisoners with his views. And of course, knowing Vladimir, they were sort of right, because he would.


‘Our society will open its eyes and stand in horror’ Vladimir Kara-Murza, charged with treason and facing a 25-year sentence, addresses the court


‘Our society will open its eyes and stand in horror’ Vladimir Kara-Murza, charged with treason and facing a 25-year sentence, addresses the court

Of course, there were “violations” that were used as pretexts. Once it was an unbuttoned shirt, another time it was a pillow that was not put on the bed in the correct way. (I don’t know what the correct way was supposed to be.) And the last infraction was [failing to get out of bed on time]. [Then] there were these disciplinary hearings and Vladimir was designated as a “consistent violator” of the rules of [detention] and he was officially put under “SUS,” that’s strogie uslovii soderzhania [“strict conditions of detention,” in Russian]. 

It didn't change much in his situation: he stayed in the same cell, the only difference is he was actually allowed another book (so he has the right to hold two books at the same time now). He is still serving his sentence in this punishment block and the “strict [conditions of detention”] are indefinite. Just as the prison authorities told him, they will not allow him out of solitary confinement. 

You know, when I want to illustrate why they’re afraid of him “contaminating” the minds of others, I always remember the story that Vladimir wrote to me about at the beginning of his detention in Moscow. Initially he was put in a cell with five other guys, petty criminals, and they had a TV. Prison cells [in Russia] often have TVs in them because even behind bars, people have to be under constant influence of propaganda. Otherwise, minds begin clearing up quite quickly and people begin asking questions. 

So Vladimir was sitting in the cell with five other guys; the TV, with propaganda news; and he had a book by [Soviet dissident] Vladimir Bukovsky. After a few weeks in that cell, they had switched to listening to concerts by the Philharmonic Orchestra, they had all read Bukovsky memoirs, and they were discussing the war in Ukraine and repressions in Russia. The authorities realized what had happened and moved Vladimir to a different cell right away, and they kept moving him until he was left alone in his cell. And then he was transferred to the strict regime prison colony. 


From the Gulag to Brexit The life and death of Vladimir Bukovsky, the fiery dissident who shed light on Soviet punitive psychiatry


From the Gulag to Brexit The life and death of Vladimir Bukovsky, the fiery dissident who shed light on Soviet punitive psychiatry

Your husband suffers from a nerve disorder as a result of the two poisoning attacks on him in the past. What do you know about the current state of his health? 

I know that his condition is not going to get better under the circumstances. I know that polyneuropathy is on the list of medical conditions that should prevent incarceration in the first place under Russian law — and there is a reason for that. It is considered a serious medical condition that could lead to paralysis.

Following these two poisoning attacks, Vladimir sustained peripheral nerve damage and he’s losing feeling in his extremities. In order to keep these symptoms under control, he has to do physical exercises regularly. He has to have fresh air, regular walks, and he had been able to keep these symptoms under control without medication before his imprisonment because he was leading a very active lifestyle. But because of his imprisonment in those punishment cells where people do not get opportunities for fresh air, walks, and exercise, his condition will deteriorate. 

These punishment cells are actually used as a method of torture by the Russian authorities today. Alexey Gorinov has been in a punishment cell and he’s suffering from a [lung] condition. Alexey Navalny has not left a punishment cell for many months and he is also a survivor of an assassination [attempt] that must have had consequences for his health. Maria Ponomarenko, a Russian journalist, has been held in a punishment cell. Nikita Uvarov, a young boy, was placed in a punishment cell without any explanation given to his parents or his lawyers as to why this happened. Alexey Moskalev the father of Masha Moskaleva who was imprisoned for refusing to condemn his daughter for making an anti-war drawing — was also put in a punishment cell. So the only conclusion one can make is that this is done deliberately and used as a method of torture. 

Do you think there’s a possibility that Vladimir could be released through a prisoner exchange? 

I believe that when we talk about those political prisoners, for whom it is a matter of life and death, all methods should be used to free these people. I’ve just mentioned a few of them, but there are others. There’s also Yevgeny Bestuzhev or Alexandra Skochilenko, who was just sentenced to seven years [in prison] and suffers from many medical conditions. She should not be kept behind bars. 

Not only are we talking about human lives, but this would also be a powerful message of solidarity with those Russian citizens who refuse to be complicit in the crimes committed by the regime. By standing with these people and fighting for their release, the world would send a very powerful message to both Russian civil society and the Kremlin that it sees [an alternative]. And that is an important message because if we want to see Russia [become] a democracy one day, we need to do everything in our power to make sure that those people who are the faces of that different Russia survive this, so they can be there to rebuild the country from scratch. 

Unlike the other people you’ve named, your husband is a dual citizen, he holds a British passport. Have the U.K. authorities been advocating for his release? 

I was very grateful to the U.K. government for imposing targeted Magnitsky sanctions against Vladimir’s persecutors. It only surprises me a little that it was not the U.K. that was the leader in this, but it was actually Canada. Vladimir has been fighting for the introduction of the Magnitsky legislation since 2010, so using Magnitsky sanctions against his perpetrators is like — not fair justice; it’s not, they should be sitting in prison — but poetic justice, let’s say. 

It also took the U.K. a year and actually the sentencing to make a statement about Vladimir’s illegal detention. Again, I am grateful that it eventually happened, but I don’t understand why it didn’t happen sooner. 

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As for more forceful advocacy, I know that the policy of the U.K. government for a very long time has been not to engage, which in my opinion, in the 21st century, is an absolutely unacceptable approach. Because whether they engage or not, the number of political prisoners and hostages taken by terrorist organizations and dictators around the world is growing. And by not engaging, the message they send to those people is, “Bad luck — you’re on your own.” This is absolutely unacceptable because we’re talking about a democratic state that should be interested in fighting for every single bearer of the U.K. passport.

I believe they absolutely will not be able to solve the problem by pretending it does not exist. The more responsible way would be actually admitting that the problem exists and, like Ambassador [Roger D.] Carstens suggested, creating a multilateral approach involving democracies around the world. In the cases of stolen Ukrainian kids or kids kidnapped by Hamas, we’re talking about the literal future of these countries. And when we talk about political prisoners — like in the case of my husband and so many Russian citizens who are sitting behind bars today — we’re very often talking about an alternative to the existing regime. So I believe that solving existing cases is absolutely crucial for tomorrow’s world. But the ultimate goal of such cooperation should be to come up with a set of instruments to prevent such practices from being used in the first place. 

Do you still feel that there’s potential for a political alternative for Russia? Because the conventional wisdom around this question seems to be that people inside Russia don’t see an alternative to Putin or that the alternative could be someone worse, in the sense that they might be even more radical.

Well, if the alternative I talked about — all those Russian citizens who understand what’s happening and are trying to oppose it — if that part of Russian civil society is destroyed, then there will be no other alternative or there will be something worse than Vladimir Putin. So everything should be done to make sure that these people survive. 

I’m not just talking about those political prisoners in Russia, but also about hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens who left the country because they do not want to be complicit in those crimes. I work with the Free Russia Foundation and we do everything to support and encourage Russian civil society activities [and] initiatives, and they are actually popping up everywhere. So we know that this alternative exists. But of course, it’s very much in the interests of Vladimir Putin to create this warped image of reality in which the entire Russian population is like this monolith that stands behind him in the war. 

The fact that detentions continue on a daily basis, the fact that trials are ongoing, that such harsh sentences are being imposed, that torture is being used, and punitive psychiatry has made its return again, shows that there are so many people who protest and reject everything that’s happening. Yes, we do not see mass protests in Russia. In totalitarian countries, mass protests do not happen, and when they do, they end in bloodshed. The 2020 protests in Belarus led to bloodshed and now there are no mass protests in Belarus anymore. Does this mean that these people have just disappeared into thin air? No, they’re there. But conditions in both these countries, in both Russia and Belarus, are such that people cannot go outside en masse because they don’t see any means of changing the situation. 

I believe that everything should be done to weaken the [Putin] regime, both from inside and outside of the country, by supporting Russian civil society and by supporting Ukraine’s war effort and encouraging its victory — not just maintaining the status quo, but its victory. Because I believe that this would weaken the regime, like the war in Afghanistan weakened the Soviet regime in the 1980s. By supporting Russian civil society, we can create conditions that would weaken the regime and when cracks appear, I'm sure that we will see these people in the streets. 

Given the degree of repressions in Russia and the fact that there is a segment of the population that supports the war and/or Putin, many people believe that political change hinges entirely upon Ukraine’s victory and Russia suffering a military defeat. As such, they argue that supporting Ukraine is the best and the most important way to promote political change in Russia. How do you respond to that argument? 

I do believe that victory on Ukraine’s terms is crucial. It’s not just that the Russian army has to leave all the occupied territories, there should be accountability: I’m talking about an international tribunal to bring [to justice] all those responsible for the act of aggression against Ukraine and also for war crimes committed by the Russian army there.

I believe that this would help open the eyes of the Russian population to what was being done. But of course, in order for us to make this information available to the population, which has not had access to one single independent TV channel since 2003, propaganda needs to be fought. And I believe that only when the regime actually collapses will we be able to proceed to this very long, tedious, and difficult process of treating this nation — because it’s not a healthy nation. Not after two decades of stolen elections and propaganda influence. 

Yes, there is a part of Russian civil society that understands what’s happening. But there is this huge mass of people — and we don't know how many — who have been absolutely, utterly brainwashed. And working with that, we will need those public trials. We will need some process of lustration. We will need to disband the Russian security services. We will need to bring to accountability those propagandists who were fueling hatred and disinformation in society.


Feeling around for something human  Why do Russians support the war against Ukraine? Shura Burtin investigates.


Feeling around for something human  Why do Russians support the war against Ukraine? Shura Burtin investigates.

Do you have the impression that the international community no longer sees the potential for a “different” Russia? 

Well, there are warning signs. The fact that Ukraine is increasingly being pushed towards some sort of negotiations is one such warning sign. Because if Ukraine is forced or coerced into “donating” part of its territory to Russia, then war will not stop. Vladimir Putin will regroup, he will strengthen his power in the country, and he will attack again in just a few years — and if it’s not Ukraine, it might be Moldova, it might be one of the Baltic states. He needs war to continue staying in power. 

Ukraine being forced towards negotiations is a sign that the world is prepared to negotiate with a bully and an aggressor yet again. And I think that by now it should have become clear to the free world that the war of aggression against Ukraine itself is the result of over two decades of impunity and appeasement of Vladimir Putin. So how can we even talk about appeasing him yet again? 

I think it bears repeating that if we want the region to live in peace and security, the only way to achieve that is through making Russia a democracy. As long as there is some kind of [autocratic] regime there, warmongering will continue, aggression will continue, repression inside [Russia] will continue. Yes, repression inside [the country] often does not bother anyone until there is aggression outside [its borders]. But aggression outside will continue, as well. 

Vladimir Putin has shown time and again over the years that he will not stay within his borders: He invaded Georgia, he annexed Crimea, he bombed Syria — he will not stay within his borders. So I believe that there is this danger that the world, having gotten tired of the war and of supporting Ukrainian efforts, might be compelled to negotiate with Vladimir Putin again. And I just think that it bears repeating that then it will have to pay yet again for controlling the damage caused by another war that Vladimir Putin will launch in a few years. 

I’m going to ask one last question, but it’s more so out of my own curiosity. What is your husband reading in prison, do you know? 

I know that he re-read [Aleksander] Solzhenitsyn. I know that he re-read Bukovsky and Natan Sharansky. I think it helps. [Vladimir] knows the story of Soviet dissidents very well because he made a documentary about them [in 2005]. He knows — and knew — many of them personally. Many of them have passed away since then, like Natalya Gorbanevskaya, Yelena Bonner, Vladimir Bukovsky, and Viktor Fainberg. But some of them are still, thank God, living and well — like Natan Sharansky or Alexander Podrabinek — and Vladimir knows them all very well. And I know that to him, the fight of Soviet dissidents is one of the most hopeful pages of our modern history. It shows that a small bunch of people, armed only with the truth and the moral courage to tell the truth, can prevail in their opposition to this absolutely atrocious and seemingly all-powerful state machine.


A dissident from a book After twenty years of opposing Putin’s regime, and living to tell the tale, Vladimir Kara-Murza is sitting in a Russian jail cell


A dissident from a book After twenty years of opposing Putin’s regime, and living to tell the tale, Vladimir Kara-Murza is sitting in a Russian jail cell

Interview by Eilish Hart 

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